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Kerala in the News - for Mostly Wrong Reasons

P N Venugopal

The last time Kerala was in the national news was for the 'Kiss of Love' campaign held at Kochi on 2 November. This novel form of protest was against moral policing which is becoming more prevalent in the state of late. The latest was the devastation of a restaurant in Kozhikode allegedly for facilitating young people to indulge in intimacy at the restaurant. 'Jaihind' a cable TV channel sponsored by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) had telecast a clandestine footage of a young couple kissing and hugging in the parking lot of the restaurant. A very ordinary bit of an incident that could be taking place in any town in India. But it caught the fancy of the pseudo moralists and led by the state secretary of Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP). They ransacked the restaurant and also bashed up the owners. Protest gathered strength in the social media and culminated in the 'kiss and hug' get-together at the Marine Drive. The participants , less than five hundred, were overwhelmed by more than double that number of those opposed to the movement under the labels of extreme right wing groups like Yuv Morcha, Bajrang Dal, Siv Sena, SDPI and strangely enough KSU, the students wing of the Congress party. The police not only did not stop cane wielding Siv Sainiks from attacking the young women and men, or other groups using pepper sprays but also abetted the cause of the moral police by arresting the youngsters. More damaging was the presence of at least 5000 'spectators' who waited for hours to watch juicy scenes.

Even though Kerala has a reputation of being an advanced society it has been quite the conservative when it comes to man-woman relationship. Voyeuristic tendencies and the penchant to be on the 'moral high' has become more prevalent in the recent past, with not just the rightwing Muslim and Hindu fringe groups.

It could be said with certainty that this urge to be on the moral high terrain is what lead to the 'bar closure' and 'prohibition' headlines. No one is able to site any immediate crises which provoked this drastic move. Not only was there any public debate nor even a discussion in the cordination committee of the ruling UDF lead by the Congress party. This government had appointed retired Justice R Ramachandran as a commission in January 2013 for studying the liquor scenario in the state and for recommendations for formulating the liquor policy of the government. He submitted his report in April 2014, recommending against imposing of prohibition, and recommending for permitting hotels coming under the category of three stars and upward to have bars. He also wanted the working hours of bars and liquor shops to be shortened and for restricting liquor to only those above the age of 21. The government not only did not act on the recommendations, but did not publish the report. The details were brought to the public domain by a RTI application made by Advocate AG Basil.

So there were no compelling reasons to go for prohibition or bar closure. However, an obscure comment by the CAG made in 2010 became a handle in the hands of certain interested parties. 418 bars were found to be below standard. The then ruling LDF coalition allowed those bars to function with the condition that they spruce up and reach the desired standards by the time licenses were issued next year. Next year the UDF came to power and they did not bother about standards and all these 418 bars were allowed to cater liquor. But at the time of the next renewals these bars were told to close down and comply with the sanitary/ hygienic norms. Thus all these bars got busy with refurbishing and renovating, mostly with bank finance. In the interim period, the KPCC president had changed. V M Sudheeran had taken over from Ramesh Chennithala who had been appointed the home minister. Sudheeran, who had managed to remain a notch above his party colleagues as an idealist, saw the temporary closure of 418 bars as an opportunity to push in his agenda of restricting the sale of alcohol. He got the backing of the feeble but vociferous anti liquor campaigners and came out with the suggestion that let those 418 remain closed; it is not going to harm the state but for the loss of a little revenue. Most of the media and the church celebrated Sudheeran's approach making the Chief minister Oommen Chandy appear an apologist of the liquor lobby. In the next UDF meeting convened to discuss the issue, every party and leader frantically positioned themselves with the KPCC president not to be branded as liquor lobbyists. Oommen chandy, the last to speak dramatically turned the tables by announcing that not only the 418 will remain closed, the other 312 which were open till then will also be closed. He also announced that total prohibition will be implemented in the state within the next ten years, closing 10 percent of liquor outlets every year. The shell shocked KPCC president and others could only clap in agreement with the performance of the chief minister that smacked of nothing but one-upmanship. No one in the meeting had the gumption even to suggest that total prohibition had not even been discussed in any forum; obviously afraid that they will be accused of moral deprivation.

So now we have the ridiculous picture of all 730 bars closed one day, with only 20 odd five- star bars remaining open, 312 opening the next day on getting a court stay, the division bench closing them down in a few days, the supreme court opening them after a few days; all the while nearly 500 retail outlets owned by the government doing roaring business across the state.

But the story does not end there. It takes only a pause to let in another character on to the stage. Biju Ramesh, Working President of Kerala Bar Owners Association. In a tv channel discussion on the 30th of October he revealed that the Bar Owners Association has given Rs one crore as bribe to KM Mani, the Finance Minister for not hampering their business this financial year. Biju also claimed that the amount demanded was five crores and the closure of bars was an indirect consequence of not paying the full amount demanded. He subsequently confirmed that as much as Rs 10 crores was collected from the bar owners and that other ministers were also paid, the details of which would be revealed later on. Kerala politics is stunned by the allegations / revelations and is yet to react in a coherent manner.

The closing down of the bars has already affected and will affect the revenue of the government substantially in the months to come. Even without the income loss from the liquor business, the state economy was in doldrums, the treasuries virtually not functioning strapped for cash and the government issuing bonds practically every month for payment of salaries and pension to its employees. There was also the funny instance of government asking all the beverages outlets (the sole purveyors of liquor in Kerala) to make advance payment of the tax due to the government for meeting the day-to-day expenses. (The government charges as much as 135 percent as tax on liquor. What is shocking is the absolute lack of interest shown by the government in revenue collection. According to a CAG report submitted in mid 2014, as much as 12000 crores tax arrears are to be collected for the years 2008-09 to 2012-13. Instead of gearing up the tax collection machinery, the government has increased the taxes in various fields by issuing an ordinance.

Being cash strapped has not prevented the government from committing itself to sanctioning new higher secondary schools and additional divisions in the aided sector, despite statistics which reveals that hundreds of plus two seats are vacant in the existing schools. The aided sector in Kerala's educational field is a strange creature. The colleges and schools are entirely private owned. But the salaries are paid by the government and bulkof the maintenance expenditure is born by the government. However the appointment of teachers and lecturers are the prerogative of the management. The ongoing rate for the appointment of a higher secondary teacher is about 25 lakhs and that of a college lecturer 30 lakhs. This has become such a routine thing that no one raises an eyebrow at a mention of this. Many deem it as a good investment. Where else do you get the salary and pension equivalent to that of government employees without even appearing before a Public Service Commission interview board, let alone a test? Merit is thrown straight out of the window. So a new a school or even a new division means money for the management. There are of course exceptions to prove the general rule.

In the context of the education sector, the unprecedented conference of all the vice chancellors of the universities in Kerala convened by the Governor P Sathasivam in his capacity of the Chancellor hit the headlines in the last month. Appointment of the former chief justice of the supreme court as governor had created a controversy and now his action. The ruling front politicians tried to colour it as an attempt by the governor to interfere in the functionng of the varsities. But it did not impress the public as almost all of the 13 universities in the state are in doldrums. Just three months ago the VC of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam was dismissed on the charge of submitting false information for meeting the qualification standards. Calicut University has ceased to function since months because of running battles with the VC and students, VC and the Syndicate. Kannur University is abandoning the buildings 21 acres of land in Mangattuparamb, just 14 kilometres from the town on which as much as 300 crores was invested and moving to the town unphazed by protests. If 30 years ago student unrest was the reason for turmoil in the universities, it is corruption, maladministration, internecine wars between top officials and cheap politics now. Maybe nothing much better could be expected when the post of VC is distributed among the coalition partners. That VA George the dismissed Vice Chancellor of the MG university sat in the same chair which was once adorned by the illustrious U R Ananthamurthy tells the tale.

Municipal waste bin
A waste dumping place

Apart from literacy and education high human indices was the hallmark of kerala society. Maybe the stats are 'satisfactory' even now. However the welfare of a society is reflected more accurately in the living conditions of the weakest strata rather than in any statistics. And what do we have here? In a recent survey of Attapadi tribal belt done by the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) it was found that 500 kids below the age of six were suffering from malnutrition. It is to be noted that this is in a population of mere 32000. in 2012-13 63 infants died and 40 were stillborn. In the current year 17 infants have died and there were 20 stillborns. And the mortality rate is likely to go up as 108 out of 500 pregnant women were anemic.

Sanitation park
Same place is now a sanitation park

One has to peer hard to locate a silver streak in the rudderless drifting of the Kerala society. It is ironic that this sliver of light is found in garbage. Garbage disposal, to be precise. In the past one decade, Kerala has become a cesspool of garbage; the entire range from domestic to e-waste. Almost every variety of waste management has been tried and failed, centralized waste management being the biggest culprit. The pattern has been for the urban waste travelling to rural landscape and the villagers rising up in arms. Much before the Prime Minister sponsored 'Swachh Bharat Abhiyan' commenced, a silent revolution was taking place in Alappuzha. Every household was to install pipe compost or biogas plant to process its waste. Those who could not do that, had to bring their waste to the street where aerobic bins were installed. (Most often the space chosen was the place where garbage was being dumped). The four feet cube concrete bin with holes for air circulation can process two tons of waste producing quality compost in three months. Community compost bins were set up in the locations which were once large dumping areas. They have now become parks. The aerobic composting system used in Alappuzha is an innovation by the Kerala Agricultural University. Municipal workers now manage community compost bins instead of being garbage collectors.

Dr Thomas Isaac, CPIM leader, economist, former minister and at present the MLA from Alappuzha is the driving force behind the initiative. Inspired by the success of the Alappuzha innovation, Dr Isaac and the CPIM has taken it to the capital city of Thiruvanathapuram, with the cooperation of the city Municipal Corporation. Like the Literacy Movement and the Peoples Plan, this initiative envisages massive participation of people. It could perhaps turnout to be a model.

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